European Commission logo
English English
CORDIS - EU research results

Representing Idiocy and Intellectual Disability in Early Modern English Literature, 1500-1640

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Renaissance Idiocy (Representing Idiocy and Intellectual Disability in Early Modern English Literature, 1500-1640)

Reporting period: 2017-11-01 to 2019-10-31

This project discusses how early modern legal and medical definitions of intellectual disability influenced the characterisation of fool characters in early modern English literature, 1500-1640. In particular, it is an attempt to go beyond a long-standing tradition in early modern criticism that has mainly focused on the fool’s performativity – folly as foolery – and the many moral, symbolic or rhetorical meanings of his foolishness. In doing so, most classic and recent scholarly essays on Renaissance fools have largely neglected the pragmatic, medical, psychological, or anthropological meanings of their supposed non-normative intelligence. This has been all the more evident in discussions of the so-called ‘wise fools’ or licensed jesters, namely Shakespeare’s, whose extraordinary skills tend to be emphasised, at the expense of analyses of what their ‘irrationality’ consists of. While criticism has sometimes – though cursorily – drawn attention to ‘natural fools’ – people who were supposedly born with intellectual disabilities – little has been done to identify either the ways in which such characters are shaped by early modern understandings of intelligence or to find out if there is an overlap between them and the wiser or more sophisticated types of fools (wise fools and clowns) presented in drama, prose works and poems. Moreover, there has too often been a tendency – epitomised by a seminal work such as Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization (1961) – to see the fool as a variant of the madman type, significantly neglecting the fact that the early modern English society advocated an ontological separation between foolishness and madness: as a consequence, it cannot be assumed that literary fools’ intellectual variation can unproblematically be associated with early modern definitions of mental illness, madness or melancholy as have been illustrated by a great number of Renaissance scholars until very recently.
This research seeks therefore to expose the identity of all types of fools in early modern literary texts as ‘disabled’: both in the sense that these characters have or perform what in the period was recognised as an intellectual disability (a condition called ‘idiocy’, or ‘foolishness’, among a range of other terms) and in the sense that fools are ‘disabled’, or variously excluded, by society’s attitude and policies.

– Analyse ideas of idiocy in early modern English literature from the point of view of medicine and law, to complement the predominantly literary and cultural perspectives from which fools have been analysed so far.
• Examine medical theories and legal/social definitions of idiocy in Renaissance England and Europe, showing also how international such discourses were.
• Use that knowledge to study how fools, their brains, and actions are depicted in English literature, 1500-1640;
• Gain an enlarged, more comprehensive knowledge of the role and characteristics of fools within the texts, and in
the broader context of the literature of the period;
• Assess how early modern assumptions of idiocy change throughout the period;
• Redefine our understanding of the renaissance meaning of folly considering the issue from a legal/scientific perspective
In the first six months I carried out a review of early modern prose, poetic and dramatic texts written between 1500 and 1640, noting significant and recurring ways in which fools/clown characters were described or described themselves. The remaining year and a half has been spent drafting a book manuscript that brought into closer dialogue literary representations of fools with technical notions of intellectual disability in the period. I worked first on legal definitions of 'idiocy' as formulated by English law tracts and records in the period, and analysed how they permeated literary culture (the permanence of the disability, the difference with lunacy, the abusive wardship system, and the economical meanings of idiocy at the time. Later, I considered medical and physiognomical notions of folly, noting how they influenced literary characters as well: I analysed the representation of fool characters in the light of the classical psychological theory of the inner senses (wits) and the renaissance theory of the humours, as well as in the light of physiognomers' tracts diagnosing folly in people with precise physical characteristics. I further brought theories elaborated recently by disability studies scholars to bear on my analysis, something which substantiated the main findings of the project. Indeed, this research has shown how specific renaissance technical (legal, medical) understandings of intellectual disability are employed in literary texts to return a complex image of the relationship which fools, as a diversified group of characters , have with disability. Specifically, they actualise the tenets of a ‘cultural’ model of disability – which considers both the individual’s and society’s concept of disability and disabling stances: fools embody or perform those technical ideas, they attract stigmatising comments based on them and they are sometimes able to joke on them or actively use them to mock others. The results of this research have been disseminated widely: I wrote/published 5 articles on topics related to my project, I completed a book manuscript and gave 6 talks in the UK, Europe and America; I networked with scholars working on disability studies and early modern folly/clowning in America, UK and Italy, I convened a panel on the topic of my research in a large international conference in 2019, and I opened a blog with news on the project and brief articles. I also contributed to Sussex Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies official blog with a guest post and started using Twitter for academic purposes.
Very little attention has been given so far to intellectual disability in early modern literary writing – perhaps because intellectual disability has been less theorised in isolation and because it poses more complex problems of interpretation, mainly but not only due to the ambiguity of its location in the body. This research therefore ultimately fills that gap: it pays full attention to fools as intellectually disabled individuals; it showcases the features of fools that signal their intellectual difference by reading the characters in the light of legal, historical and medical notions of intelligence or lack thereof in the Renaissance; it demonstrates that regardless of the type of fool, text, or exact period of composition there is a general consistency in the way those technical notions are deployed and in the values attached to them; and finally, that disability theory can be used as a powerful interpretive lens, considering both how others present or react to fools’ non-normativity and how fools themselves use their historically-defined difference to construct a sense of self. This research is important because not only it illuminates a great variety of characters and texts in the early modern period, but it also helps putting renaissance visions of disability in closer contact with how we think about similar phenomena in our own era: certain criteria for diagnosing intellectual disability were not so dissimilar from ours, just as the ways in which society can/could disable an individual by excluding them on the basis of definitions of disability that were/are deeply historicised and therefore not necessarily objective.